Working with IMAP folders in Apple Mail

IMAP is a mail server technology that, in short, allows users to store their messages on the remote server, so that they are accessible from any computer. Other email clients like Mozilla Thunderbird make it relatively simple to manage IMAP messages and folders, so I was surprised to hear some co-workers claim that Apple Mail doesn’t support this feature. After a bit of digging, I found that it does indeed; it’s just not obvious.

Thunderbird and other email clients refer to IMAP mail directories as “folders,” which makes sense to most folks familiar with file and operating systems. As it happens, Apple Mail (at least, Mail v3.1 in Leopard) calls these folders “Mailboxes,” which seems counterintuitive to most folks, who think of their email “mailboxes” as somewhat synonymous with their actual accounts.

At any rate, if you’re connecting to an IMAP server, the list of “Mailboxes” on the left-hand side of Apple Mail, below the name of your email account, is an actual list of your mail directories on the server. You can right-click (or Control+click) any of these Mailboxes to rename or delete your mail directories. Note: use this with care, as once you delete stuff on your IMAP server, it is gone for good!

You can also add a new mail folder by clicking the plus (+) icon in the bottom-left corner of Apple Mail, and choosing New Mailbox.

New Folder

You can then enter a name for the folder, which will be added to the left-hand Mailboxes list, and the new folder will be created on your IMAP server. You can then store messages in your new folder, and those messages will be available to you anytime, anywhere, from any IMAP email client on any machine.


32 thoughts on “Working with IMAP folders in Apple Mail

  1. Hi John,

    Good post! I’ve just finished converting my POP account to IMAP in Apple Mail. I’ve figured out how to manage the folders (including the tip that you should NOT let Apple Mail change your IMAP Prefix when you create a new mailbox!), but I’m having trouble with the Sent and Trash folders. When I set up the account preferences to keep deleted files and sent files on the server, I get errors from Apple Mail when it tries to send deleted or sent messages to the appropriate folders. Could you offer a brief explanation of what I’d have to do to make these features work? I’m guessing it’s some sort of a naming mismatch between the server and Apple Mail, but I’m not sure how to track down the exact problem or how to fix it. The error messages indicate (without an actual quote handy) that the mailbox doesn’t exist or access is not allowed, or something to that effect.

  2. Hi again, John,

    I found the answer to my own question–in Mail, select the folder (e.g., Trash), and then from the Mailbox menu, select “Use this folder as…” and then select Trash. Do the same process to bless the “Sent” folder.

  3. Great; thanks Kris! I hope your discovery helps some folks. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for me! For example: when I select the Trash folder, and then choose Mailbox –> Use this folder for … , all four possible choices (Drafts, Sent, Junk, and Trash) are grayed out and can’t be selected. I also verified the same behavior for the other Mailbox folders.

    If you’re using the same environment as I am (Leopard 10.5.1, Mail 3.1), I wonder what the difference is and why I can’t do the same?

  4. Well, my IMAP mailbox appears as “Inbox”, and indented under that are “Sent”, “Trash”, and a couple other folders. It’s these folders that you have to select before going to the Mailbox menu. When you select the “Use this folder for…” option (assuming they aren’t grayed out), the mailbox you had selected disappears from the Inbox. In my Mail preferences for my IMAP account, I tell it to keep deleted messages and sent messages on the server. Also, the “IMAP Prefix” field is blank, in case that makes any difference. Perhaps something here triggers an idea for you. Sorry for the vague generalities–I am at work and not able to access my Mac to give you specifics.

  5. Thanks for the pointers, Kris. In my case, to get this working, I had to:

    – In Mail -> Preferences -> Accounts, under the Advanced tab, change the value of “Keep copies of messages for online viewing” to “Don’t keep copies of any messages.” There was an “Uh oh…” moment when doing this, as Mail gives an “Are you sure you want to do that?” warning, and all the messages in my Inbox and other folders disappeared, but they re-appeared after I closed and restarted Mail.

    – In the left-hand pane, under my email account (and *not* under Mailboxes), select each of the folders (Junk, Trash, Sent), and then go to Mailbox -> Use this mailbox for … –> the mailbox name.

    I didn’t have to do this for my Inbox, as that only appears under Mailboxes and not under my account. My Junk folder stayed beneath my account and didn’t “move” to the Mailboxes list, btu Drafts, Sent, and Trash did move and are now only under Mailboxes.

  6. Thanks for all the explanations,
    unfortunately I have some problems I cannot explain to myself.
    Adding new mail folders (by clicking the plus) or renaming them simply does not work. Obviously the changes cannot be executed on the server.
    Receiving and sending mails just works fine, so my IMAP account seems to be set up correctly.
    Do you have any idea ?
    Thanks a lot !

  7. Hi Norm. If I had to take a guess, mine would be that this is not a problem with your email client, and that your email provider has either locked down their IMAP server intentionally to disallow these actions for security reasons, or that a misconfiguration of the service has caused these effects. Who is your email provider? Are you able to connect directly to your email server, via SSH or other method, and test whether you can rename or delete mail folders that way?

  8. Nice one for this post. Cleared up a few confusing things for me. Your comments too regarding the setting the folder’s intended usage from the Mailbox menu!

    The terminology Apple uses does seem quite confusing at first, but after your post explained it I picture the “mailboxes” as more like pidgeon holes, and the mail account itself is like a collection of pidgeon holes — like you’d see in an office. Makes more sense that way. Though my web mail manages them as “folders” alongside the INBOX! Requires a little double thinking on that one.

  9. I have a pretty similar problem. I have setup an IMAP account, setup a new folder for the sent messages to be stored in but I cannot “use this mailbox for” on either ‘sent’ with airplane or ‘copies of sent’ folder that I created as they all options are greyed out. I think I have tried all the suggestions here?……..please help

  10. Thanks Davey. Good analogy regarding the pigeon holes: I think that makes more sense than calling them all separate “mailboxes”!

    krystal: did you create a new folder for your sent mail? You shouldn’t have to: can you right click the Sent that’s already under your account, and choose Use this mailbox for … Sent mail?

    Also, did you go to Mail -> Preferences -> Accounts, under the Advanced tab, and change the value of “Keep copies of messages for online viewing” to “Don’t keep copies of any messages”?

  11. Pingback: in my life » Blog Archive » I agree, this was not obvious

  12. So far i checked it out: nothing changed in Apple Mail 4.1 (snow leopard), so the above still applies.

    We also have a little problem with Postfix. Postfix doesn’t like IMAP folder names with “.” & “@” Apple Mail calls folders with the account name sufix, the account name is usually an e-mail address.

  13. I try to set Apple Mail with dovecot as my IMAP server and here I discover that Apple Mail want to create a new folder in the root of an account, not in INBOX.
    If I list my IMAP folders I usally get

    „Deleted Messages“
    „Sent Messages“

    And now I want to create a new subfolder in INBOX but I can´t.

    Anybody know how to get this working?

  14. Hi there

    i have multiple imap folders that are shared by others users and these take very long to refresh everytime i login or check my mail, even over a lan network sometimes it takes 20min before i can access any of the mail in those folders. What could be causing this, it was not like this before.

  15. Hi
    I’m trying to set up mail to create an automatically created copy of my imap’s sent folder so that I have a locally stored copy of the mails I write through iPhone and mac on my mac and not be dependent on the limited long term storage on my aol accounts.
    What would I need to do? I have gone through the rules but canny seem to find any combination that would allow me to do this.

    Any help gratefully received!

    • Hi Mark,

      This wouldn’t be a “rule” or filter, but selecting the Sent folder in your mailbox and choosing an option to use this mailbox as “Sent” should get you what you want. This will work on your Mac at least; I don’t have an iPhone so I can’t confirm it will work there. Perhaps someone else can?

  16. Thank you SO much — I’ve been quite surprised by how confusing the available info is. When my POP accounts stopped working in Mail a couple of days ago, I’ve had to revamp everything, so I’m all IMAP now. Now that I better understand how to use this system, I won’t keep deleting things I’ll need later. Your help on setting up folders was very clear and exactly what I needed, and the best I’ve found so far. THANK YOU!

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad it helped, and also glad for the discussions that have followed here. Maybe the folks at Apple will take note and either make things simpler to configure or enhance their documentation?

  17. I set up a rather large IMAP account in Mail a few months ago. I am starting to think that Mail cannot handle it, because it takes forever to refresh or whatever it does to make the messages appear. Many times it will go hours without showing me any messages in certain folders, or even showing certain folders. It is very hit and miss whether I will be able to view what I need or not. By the way, I can view all messages/folders from any PC at any time. Does anyone have any pointers? I would love to stick with Mail if I can get this one thing worked out.

  18. I have several email accounts with my internet provider and several folders on the mailserver to each account. Using IMAP I was accessing all these folders and life was beautiful. 😉

    Then they moved me to a new server … and all my folders (with important emails) were gone! After some sweating and cursing I found that the folders were still accessible through webmail but I cant see them in Apple Mail. I have tried and tried with endless messages to the support department but they say it’s me that has to do something with Mail to see them. When I google and look around in settings I’m more and more convinced that they are wrong!

    If the folders are set up correctly I should just see them, right? They were created on the previous mailserver from my Mail program. Or have I missed some setting or menu or something?

    I am on a MacBook Pro, OSX 10.6.8, I am using IMAP and Mail is version 4.5.

    • Unfortunately, this could be a combination of any number of issues, but without knowing more about the server side of things (mail service and version, configuration, etc.), it’s hard to say for sure.

      A similar problem did happen to me, though: after updating to 10.6.8 (which updated Mail as well), my folders disappeared in Mail. I could explain how things were fixed in my case, but it involved some changes on the server side. Do you happen to have remote shell/interactive access to your ISP’s mail server itself? If so, you can check the file types of the mail folders in your home directory (`file *`) to ensure the folders are all of the same file type (mbox vs. MBX). If not, can you ask your ISP to check the mailbox file/folder types for you and see if your inbox is the same file type as the other folders (and that the other folders still exist)?

      • Thank you for your reply! In the end I “solved” it by creating new IMAP-folders that I could see both on my webmail and in Apple mail and then I manually moved all the mails from the folders in my webmail to the new folders. 🙂

  19. Hi. I moved an IMAP account over from Windows. All my old folders (mailboxes) are under the Inbox folder, but every new folder (mailbox) I create under that account goes to a new section below and is separated from the folders above under the inbox. Totally confused. Can anyone explain how to get all these folders to be in one structure (visually)? THANK YOU!

    • Hi Raymond,

      I’m not sure I completely understand, but you should have only “special” folder/mailbox entries near the Inbox, like Trash and Drafts; any others should appear beneath your mail account’s name. So what you’re describing may be exactly how I’d expect Mail to handle new folders/mailboxes that you create. If it’s still confusing, can you send a screenshot of your folders or something?

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